Kashmir's dream of an all-weather surface link will turn into a reality on Wednesday when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi inaugurate the rail link between Banihal to Qazigund in the Kashmir valley.
Singh and Gandhi will jointly flag off the first train at around 11.50am on the 18-km-long section between Banihal in Jammu and Qazigund in Kashmir, marking the start of the rail service to the valley.
The 8-coach train will make regular operation from Banihal to Baramulla from June 27 after the inaugural run on June 26.
The Banihal-Baramulla-Banihal train will make five trips daily beginning at 7.10am from Banihal and 7.35am from Baramulla.
Railway minister Mallikarjun Kharge, Jammu and Kashmir governor NN Vora and chief minister Omar Abdullah along with other central ministers Farooq Abdullah and Ghulam Nabi Azad are expected to be present on the historic occasion.
"We have seven pairs of trains to run between Banihal and Baramulla. Earlier there were five rakes only but now it has been increased," said a senior Northern railway official.
The Banihal-Qazigund section, which includes an 11-km-long tunnel, will reduce the distance from 35 km (by road) to 18 km. It has been constructed at a cost of Rs. 1,691 crore.
This rail section is very significant as it will provide an all-weather link to Kashmir valley which often gets cut off from the rest of the country due to snowfall during winters.
Passengers travelling by train from Kashmir valley to Banihal can avail bus service from there till Udhampur where train service is available for the rest of the country.
Northern Railway is coordinating with Jammu and Kashmir government for arrangements for the bus service.
"The bus service will be available from Udhampur to facilitate passengers availing train from Banihal next month," a senior Northern Railway official said.
Train service is already operational within Kashmir valley on the 118-km-long route between Qazigund and Baramulla in north Kashmir.
"It (Qazigund-Banihal section) was a challenging task. Besides the difficult terrain, land was acquired for the Kashmir rail link project in adverse law and order situation in the state," the official said.
Trial run on Banihal-Qazigund section was successfully done on December 28 last year and since then trains carrying stones are running on regular basis.
Currently, problems are being faced by passengers travelling between Banihal and Qazigund due to closure of Jawahar Tunnel in winter months due to heavy snowfall.
Last winter, only one-way vehicular movement was allowed between Jammu and Srinagar on national highway. There were sudden closures for almost four months from December 2012 to March this year due to heavy snowfall and slippery conditions.
"All these problems will be reduced to a large extent by running of train services between Banihal and Qazigund," the Northern Railway official said, adding that "it will be a cheaper, faster and dependable mode of transport for the people."
Known as Pir Panjal tunnel, it is the longest transportation tunnel in India and third longest in Asia. The tunnel has been constructed at an estimated cost of Rs. 1,300 crore and taken almost seven years to complete.
The tunnel has been constructed using New Austrian Tunnelling Method, which has been used for the first time on such a large scale in India.
This method optimises the tunnel design by mobilising the inherent ground strength in adopting a curved section, providing primary support system immediately after excavation and monitoring the ground behaviour while permitting it to develop its inherent strength.
A three-meter wide road has been provided inside the tunnel for maintenance and emergency rescue and relief operations. The tunnel has been made water-proof by providing continuous PVC membrane between primary and secondary lining.
It has also been equipped with the state-of-the-art air quality monitoring system, ventilation system, communication system, fire fighting system and emergency rescue system.